How to Cook Thanksgiving for a Smaller-than-Usual Crew (or Just You)

Tips and menu plans for all types of tables.

November 13, 2020
Photo by Bobbi Lin

I’ll spare you the bit about Thanksgiving looking a bit different this year. You know it, I know it. I’ll be celebrating (is that even the word?) from Europe and Zooming in to my family’s table in Texas. And while it may seem tough to sit around and cosplay normalcy, that doesn’t mean Thanksgiving need not exist. It, just like so many other things in 2020, can look, well, different. Didn’t I say I wasn’t going to go there?

Perhaps we’ll be eating with different people than usual, or a different number of people. Perhaps we’ll sit at a table that’s not our own, or the same table we’ve been sitting at for nine months now. Perhaps we’ll eat a turkey with gravy, stuffing and all the steadfast fixings, or maybe we’ll throw convention out the window and eat a bowl of cereal because it’s 2020 and why the hell not.

In that spirit, I thought we could imagine a few different scenarios for what this holiday might look like—and plan accordingly.

As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to spike again in the United States and worldwide, the CDC advises adjusting your holiday plans to reduce the spread of COVID-19 to keep your friends, families, and communities healthy and safe. Check out their official recommendations here.

Solo it is

The Game Plan
  • Pour yourself a glass of wine. Put out some cheese and crackers. Turn on a podcast.
  • One all-in-one, single-serving main.
  • Skip the sides. Who needs them?
  • One single-serving dessert. Or bake a cake or pie and eat it all week.

Whether you usually celebrate by yourself or are skipping the travel this year, chart your one person path.

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Top Comment:
“Oh, forgot to mention- a few years ago I made a turkey tenderloin. Same idea as a pork tenderloin. No prep, no waste, no muss, no fuss. One was plenty for the two of us and there were leftovers. The little slices fit perfectly on french bread for turkey sliders. Now I'm torn between making a tenderloin or legs. If I cook legs, there will be bones for soup, hmmm...”
— FrugalCat

We’ve got an entire column devoted to recipes for one that don’t skimp on the luxury, thanks to columnist Eric Kim. An unconventional Thanksgiving calls for an unconventional take on the main bird: In place of turkey, may I suggest this sumptuous duck breast with a surprising blueberry port sauce? Or this Cornish game hen in a silky samgyetang-ish soup? If the whole poultry thing isn’t your game, try a rich, decadent plate of fettuccine alfredo.

Follow up your main with a dessert for one. This single-serving chocolate lava cake, brightened with the zest of a clementine, sounds complex but comes together in less than 15 minutes. Or, hear me out, you could make an entire pie, like this pumpkin one and eat it yourself. Straight from the pie pan. What you don’t finish right away you can chip away at it over the weekend. It’s your night!

T(giving) for Two

The Game Plan
  • Two hands are better than one. Find your partner-in-crime.
  • Smaller bird for the win.
  • Two contrasting sides because opposites attract.
  • Make-ahead dessert. Whip it out in the nick of time.

So, you’ve got company. Or rather, you’re going the course with someone else by your side. That’s nice. Good for you. Let’s put those two sets of hands to good use and cobble together a quasi Thanksgiving dinner.

For two, a whole turkey seems a bit extra, don’t you think? Instead, may I suggest roasting a whole chicken? There should be enough for both of yous and then some. For a meatless option, what about a galette replete with greens, carrots and sweet potato? It’ll make a stunning centerpiece.

As for sides, I’d suggest you put the power of two to good use and each pick the accompaniment of your choice. It sounds like a lot—and it is—but who doesn’t want leftovers? How about something creamy and something fresh: like a classic green bean casserole and a crunchy panzanella or goat cheese mashed potatoes paired with a squash and chickpea salad.

If you need something to do ahead of time, try these make-ahead desserts (I’m a sucker for the Chocolate Coffee Ice Cream Cake and the Instant Pot Cheesecake). Come turkey time—er, chicken/galette time—you just bring them to life, and voila!

3-4, Time for More

The Game Plan
  • Light some candles and put on a playlist.
  • Is a cheese board the new main?
  • Veggie-forward sides are begging to make an appearance.
  • Make-ahead desserts are your friend. Whip 'em out in the nick of time.

Now your table is looking a bit more full. Sure, you could do the whole turkey and sides thing. Who’s stopping you? Definitely not me! But if you’re feeling a bit unconventional this year, then hear me out: What about taking a hint from our Resident Cheese Plater, Marissa Mullen, and centering your meal around a giant, decked out cheese platter? It’s easy, it’s casual and it’s infinitely customizable. Check out her guide to success here. Alternately, you could put Ella Quittner’s incredibly comprehensive guide to cooking the perfect turkey breast to the test. Make one per guest.

You could pair either option with some veggie-centric side dishes like this kale gratin or a Tuscan onion confit.

And what’s Thanksgiving without a pie? If you’re saving some cooking energy on the cheese board, why not put the focus on a show-stopping dessert? I’m a sucker for pecan pie, but don’t just stop at the classics. Here’s a jaw-dropping compilation of the 79 best pie recipes on our site.

Thanksgiving for 5-6

The Game Plan
  • Full house, full table.
  • It’s turkey time!
  • Prepare your sides ahead of time. Pat yourself on the back.
  • Simple desserts with individual portions. To each their own!

With a family or pod this size, perhaps a turkey is in order: We generally recommend a pound per person at the table. For more information on the picking the perfect bird, read up here]. There are, of course, infinite ways to tackle said task, but sometimes the simplest is the best. Check out this perfect, easy method for roasting a turkey. If there are any leftovers, swirl them into any of these recipes.

If you’re going the turkey route, you might want some make-aheads to alleviate the stress come Thanksgiving day. I’ve got you. Or rather, this guide does. It’s chock-full of recipes that you can make ahead of time and bring to life right before the big meal. This leek and greens tart can be prepped a few days ahead of time and tossed together and baked in the moment.

To finish thing’s up, the focus should again be on ease and simplicity. These three dessert options are individually portioned and are all about streamlining: olive oil brownies, 4-ingredient butter pecan cookies and autumnal hand pies.

What will your Thanksgiving table look like this year? And what are you planning to serve?
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Valerio is a freelance food writer, editor, researcher and cook. He grew up in his parent's Italian restaurants covered in pizza flour and drinking a Shirley Temple a day. Since, he's worked as a cheesemonger in New York City and a paella instructor in Barcelona. He now lives in Berlin, Germany where he's most likely to be found eating shawarma.


Deleted A. November 18, 2020
An excellent option for a smaller gathering is a CAPON. Larger than an average chicken but smaller than a turkey, and a different flavour than either. You won't find one in most regular grocery stores, but any decent butcher shop that sells poultry or game birds should be able to get one for you. For two people, another excellent choice would be a pheasant, much more flavourful than chicken or turkey but a bit more complicated to cook, though not difficult at all.
FrugalCat November 18, 2020
Oh, forgot to mention- a few years ago I made a turkey tenderloin. Same idea as a pork tenderloin. No prep, no waste, no muss, no fuss. One was plenty for the two of us and there were leftovers. The little slices fit perfectly on french bread for turkey sliders.

Now I'm torn between making a tenderloin or legs. If I cook legs, there will be bones for soup, hmmm...
Yvonne A. November 17, 2020
Several years ago, I decided I didn't want to cook a turkey for only 2 of us. I served rosemary braised lamb shanks instead. Since then, that's what my husband insists on and it's our Thanksgiving go-to.
andi November 17, 2020
Our butchers all ran out of small they are cutting big ones in's spatchcock time!
KSR November 20, 2020
FrugalCat November 13, 2020
I think this year I am going to cook one or two turkey legs.